Thursday, 4 April 2013

Miles Davis And The Secret Of Great Marathon Running


If Miles Davis had been a runner I think he would have run marathons.

It is 16 days to go until the London Marathon and I am trying to put into practice what Miles Davis realised was possibly the secret of great jazz. Miles Davis famously described the most important part of his solos as the empty space between notes, the “air” that he placed between one note and the next.

When training for the marathon runners invariably talk about all the hours they have run and the miles they have clocked up in training for the big day, but just as important is how much they have not run. Anybody can run themselves into the ground just as any competent jazz musician can play all the notes their instrument can produce. But a great marathon runner knows when not to run, just as Miles Davis knew great jazz came out of when not to play. 
In his book “Running With The Kenyans” Adharanand Finn sets out to try and discover the secret(s) to Kenyans success at distance running. He comes up with several theories but one of the most convincing seems to be that Kenyan runners sleep a lot – over twelve hours a day. They train between the empty spaces between the runs just as Miles Davis played the “air”. 

In trying to uncover the secret of amazing running Adharanand had rediscovered a simple truth about all great art, and if you have seen a Kenyan professional runner run it’s hard to argue it’s not art. Great art is just as much what isn’t there as much as what is there. Picasso said the critical aspect of his work, was not the objects he painted themselves, but the space between objects. And Debussy more than a hundred years ago said “music is the spaces between the notes”.

The significance of not running becomes even more important in the last few days and weeks before a marathon when marathon runners start their “taper”. Tapering is when you start to drastically cut the amount of running you do in training in order to rest your muscles so they can be at their strongest on the day of the race. Rest too much or start your taper too early and you can lose the edge and speed you have been training so long to achieve. Start the taper too late and your muscles will still be tired when you line up for the start of the marathon. 
I started my taper for the London marathon today resting on what would normally be a 10k run this morning. And as I walked to work I listened to Miles Davis on my MP3 player listening to the spaces between the notes and hearing my taper throughout the music. 

I may never be a great runner like the Kenyans or produce timeless art such as Miles Davis but I'm learning the importance of "doing nothing".  

The picture today is of the album cover for Miles Davis’ Kind Of Blue possibly one of the best examples of how he played the “air” between the notes.


  1. nice! good luck and enjoy the taper

    1. Thank you Santababy. Too early to really start enjoying the taper (feeling guilty I'm not doing enough) but give me another week and I will be loving it.

  2. Great philosophical post - I've always obsessed about music but have only loved running for about 4 years. I have no time for those Ministry of Sound "Running Trax" albums and think we need to consider a bit more carefully about which music feels good or right to run or not run to.

    Hope all goes well for you at VLM - I've deferred for a year because of a suspected stress fracture. That's more a "big gap between albums" than a "space between notes"!